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IDEO Stories

Stitching a More Human Safety Net

by Nazlican Goksu, Sue-Jean Sung, Jason Baker, Peter Jackson, and Kyle Cheon

This story is part of a series of design fiction that explores what a new era of public service could look like in 2025, five years after COVID-19. Learn more here.

Protagonist: Sue
Position: Public Servant
Government: Nation of Australia
Illustration by Lia Wesp

Sue is an Enabler. No, that doesn’t mean she encourages bad habits in her friends. And it doesn’t mean she’s a pushover as a mom — though, to be fair, it’s hard to say no to her twin boys. An Enabler is a special role designated in 2023 by Services Australia in response to the catastrophic COVID-19 era — and Sue’s one of the best there is.

The pandemic exposed terrible fault lines in our social systems. On one side was the small business whose loan application froze in the government portal. On the other was an entire community without access to Wi-Fi and science-based evidence about the virus. On one side was the family of six unable to obtain unemployment support. On the other was the deaf woman who could no longer read anyone’s lips on account of their masks, and whose isolation precipitated a mental health plummet. More than half the people who lost their jobs during the pandemic could not get the assistance they needed. Simply too many people fell through the cracks.

As a nation, Australia realized that those who need the most are often represented the least. For people to live their best lives and get the services they need, public service itself has to change, and that’s where people like Sue come in. She’s part sponsor, part advocate, part life coach. She’s the point of contact within the government for a whole roster of residents: She’s their voice inside the system, and she knows how to work it to meet their needs.

Illustration by Lia Wesp

Today she’s in Queensland, driving farm to farm for annual consultations. Some of her clients are the farms themselves, who qualify for benefits reserved for small businesses. Others are laborers who work the farms, some of whom don’t have internet access and may not realize that a new stimulus program just launched which they might be eligible for.

Nigel is one of those laborers, and he finds himself feeling a little lost whenever Sue wades into bureaucratic complexity. But Sue knows how to switch gears and meet him where he is. Over the better part of an hour, Sue and Nigel co-design what the next year of public service could look like for him and his family. Sue walks Nigel through the stimulus application, which they agree is a no-brainer. She shows him where to sign and says, “Right I’ll pop this in the mail, and next week you’ll wake up to 900 dollarydoos in your bank account. Sound alright?” He nods.

“Any questions, Nigel?”

“I always think of a question about two minutes after you drive off.” They both chuckle, and Sue reminds him of the Navigators Network. Because she can’t be by his side round the clock, Nigel can call the non-emergency hotline for any questions related to public services — and, of course, drop Sue’s name to the expert on the other end of the line. Because Sue not only enables Nigel to obtain the support he needs, she vouches for him. And she’s rooting for him, too.

How might we support marginalized communities and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks?

Where to go from here

There are numerous ways to take this profoundly unusual year as a chance to permanently transform. Governments at national and local levels that embrace this “reset opportunity” will emerge stronger. It’s time to listen to people, learn what has changed in their lives, and find new ways to address their needs.

These six provocations are more than hunches; we believe they will be critical territories in the new landscape of leadership. Read more about the visions behind these questions:

1. How might public services and spaces provide a contactless option?

2. How might we incentivize mobility and upskilling within government?

3. How might city, state, and federal governments reallocate resources to meet emerging needs?

4. How might we support marginalized communities and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks?

5. How might we amplify access to public services and meet residents where they are?

6. How might we give both residents and public servants more access and more choice?

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"It doesn't occur to most people that everything is designed" - Bill Moggridge

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